McKinley Park Candidates Guide

12th Ward Alder Declines Forum, Charging Bias from Organizers

Published January 19, 2023

Chicago 12th Ward Alderwoman Anabel Abarca has declined to participate in an upcoming candidate forum due to conflicts of interest within organizing groups, including McKinley Park neighborhood non-profits Neighbors for Environmental Justice and the McKinley Park Development Council, she said.

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In a statement posted to her Instagram account, Abarca said the forum “does not meet the requirements of fairness and impartiality.

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“The majority of the hosting organizations have employees and/or board of directors who are actively campaigning and canvassing for my opponent,” the statement said.

One Forum Participant

The recently shared 12th Ward forum poster inaccurately lists both candidates as participants.The recently shared 12th Ward forum poster inaccurately lists both candidates as participants.The forum, which originally included promotions listing the Brighton Park Neighborhood Council and the McKinley Park Development Council as primary organizers alongside Neighbors for Environmental Justice, now lists the latter as the organizer and others as supporters.

The forum remains scheduled for Thursday, February 9, 2023, at Kelly High School in the Brighton Park neighborhood. Only candidate Julia Ramirez, Abarca’s opponent, is slated to participate, even though recent promotions continue to list both candidates.

Conflicts of Interest

Abarca said that board members of the McKinley Park Development Council are actively working for the campaign of her opponent without disclosing their roles or recusing themselves from council business where they have a conflict of interest.

“At the very least, they should disclose this to residents,” Abarca said.

Petitions and Donors

Petitions for Ramirez show McKinley Park Development Council board members Liz Gres and Anthony Wojtal as circulators working to solicit signatures for her campaign.

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Campaign finance records show that Gres and her husband, Pete DeMay, a multiple-former candidate for 12th Ward alderman, are two of the largest donors to the Ramirez campaign. The pair has also demonstrated their support for Ramirez through campaign activities, including those depicted and promoted on social media.

No Disclosure, No Recusal

The development council declined to answer questions and said it would soon be releasing a public statement. The council “does not engage in partisan activities,” it stated in an email reply. “We have extended multiple opportunities for both 12th Ward aldermanic candidates to engage with us on equal footing.”

Abarca objected to the lack of disclosure provided by these groups when she met with them first as a candidate, and then as the appointed 12th Ward Chicago City Council representative, she said.

Brighton Park Council

“Board of directors members who had already begun working [for the Ramirez campaign] should have recused themselves and disclosed their roles,” Abarca said, especially since the development council queried her about campaign details and funding sources.

A photo submitted to the McKinley Park News depicts Ramirez petitions and campaign literature at the sign-in table for a McKinley Park Play Garden event in October 2022.A photo submitted to the McKinley Park News depicts Ramirez petitions and campaign literature at the sign-in table for a McKinley Park Play Garden event in October 2022.Abarca also voiced concern about bias at forum co-sponsor Brighton Park Neighborhood Council, pointing out that one of its director-level employees is engaged with hiring political canvassers, another full-time employee is a canvasser for Ramirez and a mothers group sponsored by the council is depicted in a photo at its meeting promoting Ramirez.

Patrick Brosnan, executive director of the Brighton Park Neighborhood Council, said that all its employees and helpers are welcome to engage in whatever political work they care to do, as long as this remains unconnected to the work, resources or time spent for the council.

Will Not Police Activities

Brosnan said that no such campaigning or partisan work crossed over into any council business. He did not know any details about the mothers group photo, but noted that the council serves more than 100 parents in their programs, and that event photos showed it did not take place at a council facility or property.

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“Our policy is that if staff want to be significantly engaged, we will not police their activities,” he said.

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Previous Candidate Forums

Forum organizer Neighbors for Environmental Justice did not reply to this publication’s request for comment or to answer questions. Abarca said she tried multiple times to meet with the group, concluding in a canceled meeting that was never rescheduled.

Both Neighbors for Environmental Justice and DeMay’s past 12th Ward aldermanic campaigns have maintained a primary focus on the MAT Asphalt plant and its co-owner Michael Tadin Jr., especially Tadin's support for Cardenas' political campaigns. DeMay was a member of Neighbors for Environmental Justice when it was first founded in the summer of 2018.

Neighbors for Environmental Justice has previously hosted events leading up to aldermanic elections, including a community social in January 2019 and a candidate forum in February 2019, both featuring candidates DeMay and Jose Rico. Then-incumbent 12th Ward Alderman George Cardenas did not attend either event.

Play Garden Campaigning

Among Abarca’s past experience working in the offices of elected officials is her role as chief of staff to Cardenas when he was 12th Ward alderman. Abarca also briefly volunteered on the board of the McKinley Park Development council before resigning to recuse herself in order to pursue political work.

Abarca said she noted instances of inappropriate politicking also within other neighborhood non-profit organizations. An example she cited was canvassing for Ramirez this fall at a public event at the McKinley Community Play Garden, with photos depicting a petition for Ramirez alongside her campaign materials at the event registration table.

Ramirez Response

“The McKinley Community Play Garden committee is aware of the rules surrounding campaigning and political activity at the play garden and have always diligently followed the rules surrounding these activities,” said play garden organizer Jessica Fong.

In a post on Instagram, Ramirez said she would still be attending the Neighbors for Environmental Justice forum. “It’s disappointing to hear our opponent discredit the good work that the community organizations have done in our neighborhood for years,” she wrote.

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Southwest Collective Forum

“I am … not surprised that my opponent is refusing to meet with 12th Ward residents to discuss how to move this ward forward after 20 years of local machine politics,” Ramirez wrote.

“I don’t see how [the forum] could be legitimate,” Abarca said. “I’m more than happy to attend a debate that is held by organizations that are clearly impartial, neutral and haven’t had these issues.”

Abarca said that’s why she’s participating in the Aldermanic Candidate Forum presented by the Southwest Collective on January 26, 2023, at Curie High School in the Archer Heights neighborhood. Ramirez has announced she also intends to attend this event.

Not a Campaign Rally

Brosnan noted that candidates tend to stack events as much as possible with their supporters. Given that only one candidate is set to participate in the Neighbors for Environmental Justice forum, how will it differ from a campaign rally?

“I hope it doesn’t become a rah-rah forum,” Brosnan said.

Ed. Note: MAT Asphalt is a Sponsor of the McKinley Park News. For information about our operations and policies, see our About Us page and the Letter from the Editor "Building a Trustworthy News Business." For more about our coverage of MAT Asphalt, see the Letter from the Editor "Notes on Our Reporting about MAT Asphalt."

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